Central PA Startups Delve into Nanotech for Solar Solutions
Researchers in Lancaster and State College are aiming to coax big changes from small packages. Working at two separate startups, they are experimenting with nanotechnology in an effort to unleash the next generation of solar panels, which promise to be cheaper and more efficient than the models widely available today.
The companies are Lancaster-based Illuminex
and State College-based Solarity
. Each one is developing new ways to mass produce solar cells based on nanomaterials too small to be seen without the aid of powerful microscopes. Their techniques and approaches differ, of course. But they share a conviction that they are shaping the future of solar energy and helping Pennsylvania and the U.S. become leaders in the field.
"It's really going to take radical, novel technologies to jump ahead," says Joe Habib, founder and chief executive officer of Illuminex.
Tucked into a former RCA television factory, Illuminex has been experimenting with nanowire arrays. The arrays resemble toothbrushes, with tiny wires of copper, silicon and other materials serving as the bristles. There are about one billion per square centimeter. By controlling the ingredients making up the wires, as well as their shape, size and density, researchers at Illuminex can design arrays for a range of purposes, Habib says. In addition to solar cells, the company is working on applications involving batteries and heat pipes.
Since its founding in 2003, Illuminex has attracted more than $5 million in state and federal support for research and development. Recent grants include nearly $186,000 awarded in November by Pennsylvania’s Solar Energy Program
. The money helped the company build a new silicon nanowire device development laboratory and buy a chemical vapor deposition system, which aids research into nanowire cultivation.
The technology isn’t just smaller. It also promises to be cheaper. Conventional solar cells use a lot of silicon, which can be expensive, says Habib. By incorporating nanowires, cells can be made with less silicon and with cheaper materials, such as glass or aluminum. The cells also can be incorporated in more flexible materials, such as fabrics, Habib says, envisioning products like power-generating tents and blankets. "That would be pretty amazing," he says.
The technology’s commercialization is several years away, unless Illuminex can snag more funding, Habib says. "That can really accelerate our development efforts."
Founded in 2006, Solarity is on a different path, but it has a similar goal: cheaper, more efficient solar cells. By incorporating nanostructures in a cell, Solarity aims to make cells that are better at converting sunlight into electricity, says Steve Fonash, Solarity’s chief technology officer and an engineering sciences professor at Penn State University
Conventional solar cells are basically sandwiches made up of materials that catch sunlight and convert it into electricity, Fonash says. In conjunction with researchers elsewhere, Solarity is developing an alternative approach. Instead of harvesting sunlight on a flat surface, Solarity pushes nanofingers into the surface to collect more of the light. "The question now is how far can we push efficiency up and cost down," Fonash says.
As it develops the basic technology, Solarity also is honing the production process, Fonash says. The company already is in talks with much larger companies about commercializing the technology, he adds. "Things are moving along very nicely."
To date, falling prices for solar panels stem from the movement of manufacturing to China, where labor is cheaper, Fonash and others say. It doesn’t come from any great leap in technology.
But a leap is needed to bring solar closer to what people in the industry call the inflection point: the moment when electricity from the sun is no more expensive than power from coal or nuclear plants.
And nanotechnology is among the most promising areas for that breakthrough, says Peter Lynch
, a consultant and investment banker in South Salem, N.Y., who has been involved in solar energy since 1977. The existing technology is limited by the laws of physics, Lynch says. On a nano-scale, however, the laws of physics change. "We need revolutionary, disruptive technology, not something that's 5 percent better than the current technology," he says, "because it's not enough if we're going to get to a significant level of solar energy production."
Doug Neidich, the chief investor in Solarity, compares the current moment to the discovery of the light bulb. Back then, plenty of people were fiddling with the components. It just took a single inventor to make them glow. "This feels like an absolutely Edisonian exercise to me," Neidich says.
Germany and China are outperforming the United States in solar manufacturing, Neidich says. But, he says, the United States is a leader when it comes to innovation. And the next big thing in solar? "I still see that kind of a breakthrough coming here and not somewhere else," he says.
Joel Berg is a freelance writer, part-time
writing teacher and recovering business reporter living in York. Send feedback
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An employee uses Illuminex's state of the art machine to grow silicon nanowire.
Illuminex CEO Dr. Joe Habib
An Illuminex employee develops a template.
Steve Fonash CEO of Solarity
Solarity Headquarters, State College, PA